Fun with Goldenrod


For me, it’s been a transition.  I used to think goldenrod was just a weed, something to be eradicated whenever it appeared.  I’ve slowly come around, though, to see its virtues, learn to manage its quirks, and feature it in my garden. Here’s what I’ve learned and how I design with it.

I started my transition by taking a close look at the goldenrods to see whether the pollinators were attracted, and boy were they ever!  Almost every single plant I observed had some kind of insect feasting on the pollen.  I’m not an entomologist so I can’t identify these for you, but it’s clear that these early-fall blooms are an important food source for pollinators. Since feeding the pollinators is a priority for me, I opened my mind to this being a good garden plant.

Speaking of pollen, there is a common belief that goldenrod is responsible for fall allergies and runny noses.  Turns out this is a myth.  We get runny noses when airborne pollen is inhaled.  Goldenrod pollen is quite heavy and sticky, too heavy to become windborne.  Instead, it is pollinated by the insects as are shown here.  Since it is never airborne, we never inhale it unless we stick our noses into the blooms directly.  Other plants that bloom at the same time, such as ragweed, are the ones responsible for our fall nasal distress.
Species and Cultivars

I’ve been told there are twelve species of goldenrod (Solidago) that are native to Cape Cod, so I have gone out into my garden to see which ones grow there.  It was a challenge because many species are hard to distinguish.  You need first to identify the overall pattern of the blooming branches, which can be plumes or arches or elm-like shapes.  Then you need to look at the leaves, which can have a branching veined pattern or a straight veining pattern.  Then there are all sorts of detailed distinguishing traits, like the degree of hairiness on the stems.

I was able to get the bloom shapes and leaf patterns identified, but clearly need more practice at the details.  Here are four I can share:  early goldenrod (S. juncea), Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), the cultivar Fireworks (S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’), and gray goldenrod (S. nemoralis).  The early and Canada goldenrods are volunteers that are common on the Cape and popped up in my garden.  I bought the Fireworks at a nursery and planted It, and I saw the gray goldenrod on a guided walk on Strong Island, where it grows in the open meadows there.

Design Value

Within my garden beds, I’m finding goldenrod to be most useful for providing a bright shot of color.  I like it best when planted in clumps of a few to a dozen stems.  A single stem looks lonely, but multiple stems in a group have a nice effect.  For instance, I used them toward the back of the cottage garden and at the door to my potting shed. The texture looks interesting up against cedar shingles or a backdrop of darker plants.

It’s also been fun pairing them with different plants in other parts of the garden, too.  Here is the Fireworks goldenrod growing next to short-leaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum).

And here the Canada goldenrod pokes up among a colony of sweet pepperbush (Clethra alternifolia)

Another frequent use of goldenrod is in a sunny meadow.  Here is one across the street, where goldenrod and milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are allowed to run, making a nice summer picture.

Culture and Management

As you can see, I have a lot of goldenrod!  In fact, the biggest management issue is deciding each spring where I want to allow the goldenrod to grow.  The Canada goldenrod is particularly enthusiastic about spreading itself around, both by seed and by underground stolons expanding from existing clumps. There are a few beds where I pull it all out, and several beds where small clumps are allowed.  Editing the goldenrod has become a routine maintenance task.

This plant grows just about anywhere.  Here you see it on a sunny dry hillside along with Rosa rugosa and beach plums, and in a clump in the shade of Norway spruces; both spots have quite acidic soil with low nutrient value.  I have never watered these volunteers nor provided any soil amendments. That’s my kind of plant!

This year I wanted to see if goldenrod could look a bit more cultured than weedy.  For one clump I cut it halfway down around the Fourth of July.  This should, in theory, encourage more branching on this single-stemmed plant and more blooms within fewer stems. Here’s that clump in my front garden, just coming into bloom, along with Montauk daisies and Sedum Autumn Joy.  This is about five stems, but there are easily three times that number of blooms and it looks like a coherent perennial rather than a rampant weed.  I’m happy with this effect and will try some more of this next year.

I hope you’ve begun to see the possibilities in using goldenrod in your garden.  If you want to get your toes wet before diving in as deep as I clearly have, you might try the cultivars like Fireworks that are available in most nurseries.  They give that same pop of color and interesting shape and texture but are not supposed to spread as much.
But do try – because goldenrods are just plain beautiful!

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